The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Millions could die prematurely without ‘unprecedented’ action to clean air and water, a new U.N. report warns

In this Friday, Sept. 14, 2018, file photo, Russ Lewis covers his eyes from a gust of wind and a blast of sand as Hurricane Florence approaches Myrtle Beach, S.C. According to a scientific report from the United Nations released on Wednesday, March 13, 2019, climate change, a global major extinction of animals and plants, a human population soaring toward 10 billion, degraded land, polluted air, and plastics, pesticides and hormone-changing chemicals in the water are making the planet an increasing unhealthy place for people. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The United Nations released its sixth Global Environment Outlook report on Wednesday. Its main message, delivered across 740 pages, is straightforward: Human action is degrading the Earth and its ecosystems, and conditions will worsen if people do not take “unprecedented action” to try to reverse the situation.

Those actions, according to the report, include reducing land degradation, limiting pollution, improving water management, and mitigating climate change. The report also calls for environmental considerations to be “mainstreamed” into all social and economic decisions — so that the environment, in other words, is viewed not as its own issue, but central to all policymaking at all governmental levels. If drastic action is not taken, the report warns that, among other things, millions could die prematurely from air pollution and from deadly infectious diseases from water pollution by 2050.

The report stresses that “unsustainable human activities globally have degraded the Earth’s ecosystems, endangering the ecological foundations of society."

The first Global Environment Outlook report was released in 1997. Its sixth iteration was released in time for this year’s U.N. Environment Assembly, currently taking place in Nairobi. But it also comes on the heels of another U.N. report, issued in October, which said that the international community has 12 years to limit the disastrous effects of climate change.

That climate report and Wednesday’s report on the environment both address the question of whether humans can continue business as usual and have enough clean air to breathe, water to drink and nourishing food to eat by 2050. Their answer is a resounding “no.”

Whether political leaders and policymakers will decide to heed the warnings is another question. President Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris agreement on climate change, and his nominee to replace Nikki Haley as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Knight Craft, is on record as saying she believes “both sides” of the climate change debate.